AFTER killing thousands in Africa and terrifying millions more, the Ebola virus is claiming a new victim: the economies of what are already some of the world’s poorest countries, experts say.
“Our development agenda was interrupted by the Ebola outbreak which started in March and returned with intensity in June, spread into the capital city where one third of the population reside,” Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told the World Bank by video link on Thursday.
During a visit this week to the east of the country, on the frontier with Guinea, Sirleaf called on people to “fight together to get this Ebola virus out of our way in order to return to our development initiatives.”
She specifically mentioned a project to pave the Yekepa-Ganta highway, which was suspended after foreign workers were evacuated.
The fallout from the Ebola virus, which has killed more than 4,000 people in west Africa this year, has had the same effect as an “economic embargo” by isolating affected countries, Sierra Leone’s finance minister, Kaifala Maraha, said Saturday. “Everything we’ve achieved has been lost,” he said.
While visiting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone this week—the three nations hit hardest by Ebola—Magdy Martinez-Soliman, director of the UN Development Programme’s Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, said it was still possible “to avoid paralysis if we act now to ensure that years of development efforts are not jeapordised.”
But Liberian economist Samuel Jackson painted a grim picture.
“Businesses slow down or close down. The big industries are not gonna build their plants. The infrastructure works are all delayed,” he said.
Liberia’s two biggest raw material products, rubber and iron ore, have taken a hit, while prices for imports have rocketed.
Edward George, head of a research unit at Ecobank in the region, told AFP that with Ebola “there’s almost like a slow squeezing of the different countries and the commodities sector. It isn’t that there has been any massive disinvestment suddenly, but what is happening is a slow-down of all operations. Everyone is putting everything on the back burner in terms of new investment.”
US oil giant ExxonMobil for instance said in September it was delaying its first offshore exploration in Liberia that had been meant to start at the end of this year.
Food prices shoot up
The crucial raw materials sector may be suffering, but not as much as agriculture and services, which are especially vulnerable to disruption from the deadly disease.
“We’re at almost zero percent occupancy rates, to be honest,” said Moussa Sow, the Senegalese owner of a 50-room hotel in Conakry.
More worryingly, agriculture and food security in general are at risk, according to the United Nations food agency, the FAO.
An FAO study in Sierra Leone found that 47% of people questioned believe the crisis has seriously affected their agricultural activities. In Liberia’s bread basket province of Lofa, staple goods prices have risen 30-75% since August.
In an attempt to keep food production going, Sierra Leone’s agriculture ministry is promoting a “go back to farm” campaign to encourage farmers in non-quarantined areas.
“The campaign is yielding dividend, as farmers are trickling back after staying away from their farms due to fears of the Ebola virus,” Prince Kamara, a spokesman for the ministry said.
“But hired labour remains scarce, as workers fear that the job which requires intensive sweaty output can easily increase transmission if body contact is made among workers,” he said.
Even worse is the situation in quarantined zones, where more than half of Sierra Leone’s population lives.
“Since the emergence of the Ebola crisis people are afraid to come and sell to us and they are also afraid to come and buy,” said Fatu Kamara, deputy chairwoman of Port Loko Central Market.
“Before, when we go to the day market we usually buy goods cheap, but now since they are risking their way to reach us they are very expensive.”
In Monrovia, capital of Liberia, manioc prices have risen 150% and many families are spending 80% of their income on food, the FAO says.
“These latest price spikes are effectively putting food completely out of their reach,” Vincent Martin, the FAO’s regional coordinator, said.
A rare piece of good news was an announcement by Coca-Cola, which has been in Liberia for half a century, that it will boost investments, notably with production of mineral water starting in March next year. Equipment is expected to start arriving in October.